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CLEMSON -- The last time Florida State walked into Death Valley and outclassed Clemson, third-year coach Tommy Bowden was asked how long it would take for his team to close the gap with the Seminoles.
That was 2001. Twelve years later, it might be appropriate to again talk about the gap between the two programs. Because on the biggest national stage ever at Death Valley, a disparity was glaringly apparent as Florida State dealt the Tigers a complete and total whipping.
The Seminoles rolled up the highest point total ever by a visitor to this stadium before walking away with a 51-14 scalping.
"We got our tails whipped," Dabo Swinney said afterward. "Everybody is disappointed. It got away from us. There's really not much else to say other than I know the leadership, heart and character of our team and I know how we'll respond."
At the game's start, the place was shaking like never before as a capacity crowd jumped and screamed and salivated for this Top 5 matchup. By the start of the fourth quarter, the stadium was more than half empty as Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit searched for filler material.
On Aug. 31, Clemson made its showdown with Georgia a showcase of all the things that make football Saturdays here special. And a 38-35 victory that night made these guys rock stars who vaulted up the polls and into the BCS title conversation.
On this night, the splendor and pageantry gave way to prolonged pain right about the moment Stanton Seckinger lost a fumble on the first offensive play to set the rout in motion.
Maybe things would've been different had Clemson avoided turnovers. The Tigers committed four of them, three by their fifth-year senior quarterback.
Maybe things would've been different had the Tigers capitalized on all those possessions that went into Florida State territory, particularly the two in the second quarter when it still felt like a game at 17-7.
You can talk about the possibilities, but first you have to talk about the fact that Florida State is simply the better team. Clemson could have gone turnover-free and the Seminoles still would've won convincingly. It was simply too easy for them, way too often, to believe otherwise.
We're in the ninth paragraph without a mention of Jameis Winston, and that seems a gross injustice. The redshirt freshman talked a lot last week about not being the least bit concerned about the crowd, saying that the avalanche of noise was irrelevant.
The orange-clad masses who came might not have liked what he said, but they left with a new appreciation for the kid who's rocketing up Heisman Trophy lists as a result of yet another command performance - this one with the nation watching, and in the most hostile environment he's faced in his lifetime.
Jimbo Fisher let the TV cameras into the Seminoles' locker room before the game, and it provided a revealing portrait of Winston leading his team with self-assurance that has to be a bit chilling in the aftermath of the unexpected demolition.
"Put a smile on your face," he told his teammates as he stood before them. "We ain't leaving without a victory. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it big."
Winston, who tossed for 444 yards and three touchdowns on a 22-of-34 clip, put himself into an exalted class of other first-year quarterbacks who have been transcendent sensations in recent years: Cam Newton in 2010, Johnny Manziel last year, and now Famous Jameis this year. Since they carved up Pitt in the opener, it's been his world and it's hard to see that changing anytime soon.
Florida State was the favorite coming in, and those who liked the Tigers liked them because they possessed a veteran quarterback who'd been there and done that when it came to winning on big stages.
But it was Tajh Boyd who looked more like a redshirt freshman on this night. He appeared jittery from the start, and all three of his turnovers were killers: the fumble (caused by Lamarcus Joyner) recovered by Mario Edwards and taken 37 yards to the end zone to make it 17-0 less than 12 minutes in; the interception by Joyner at the Seminoles 7-yard line as Clemson tried to cut into a 24-7 second-quarter deficit; then an interception by Ronald Darby at the Seminoles' 22 that ended all hope halfway through the third quarter.
After committing two turnovers in the first four games, Clemson has totaled eight in the last three games.
"We hadn't even really broken a sweat and it's 17-0," Swinney said.
Two years ago, the Tigers beat the Seminoles 35-30 for their fifth consecutive home win over Florida State. Last year Florida State steamrolled Clemson in the second half in Tallahassee for a 49-37 win, and the hope was things would be different in this one.
Florida State lost a load of talent from the defense that shut down the Tigers after halftime last year, but they held Clemson to seven until a garbage-time touchdown in the final moments. The Tigers had just four fewer first downs than Florida State, 26 to the Seminoles' 30, but the scoreboard told a much different story.
Florida State did just about whatever it wanted, totaling 565 yards and converting eight of 12 third downs.
The annihilation was reminiscent of the days in the 1990s when the Seminoles would pillage the Tigers every year on their way to ACC titles that seemed automatic.
Come to think of it, Florida State's current conference supremacy seems rather automatic during nights like this.
Clemson fans would rather take a trip back to their cars than witness the trip back in time that was on display Saturday night.
"That might be the best team in the country," Swinney said. "They very well could be."
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